Monday 16 December 2013

No evidence Little India riot reflects workers' unhappiness: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Little India goes quiet as weekend alcohol ban kicks in; interim rules likely this week
By Fiona Chan, The Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2013

There is no reason to believe that last Sunday's riot in Little India stemmed from unhappiness among foreign workers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

The riot was spontaneous and localised, with signs that alcohol was a factor, he said. It also involved men from many different companies and living in different places.

"It is unlikely that all the companies will have the same problem," he told reporters in Tokyo, where he attended a summit marking 40 years of Asean-Japan relations.

In the aftermath of the riot, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam visited foreign workers at their dormitories and spoke with them in the presence of the media.

"There is no tension, there is no sense of grievance or hardship or injustice," Mr Lee said.

About 400 men, mostly of South Asian origin, were involved in the riot after a traffic accident left a worker dead. So far, 33 men have been charged in court.

A large area around Little India has been declared a no-alcohol zone this weekend, and private buses that usually ferry foreign workers to and from the place on their day off will not run today.

The usually bustling area was noticeably quieter yesterday, with an increased, visible police presence.

Yesterday, the police issued a brief statement in the evening saying it is illegal to organise or take part in a public assembly without a permit.

"The public is requested to allow the community in Little India the space and time to recover from the events of last Sunday," it said.

The cooling-off measures this weekend are temporary. Mr Lee said interim rules to help ensure order and stability in the area are likely to be decided this week.

The alcohol ban covers 374 establishments over quite a big area, and Mr Lee said this is because the authorities did not want anything to go wrong this weekend.

"Let's just calm down, cool down, make sure that things are back to normal," he said.

"After that, we can calibrate, and establish new rules. It will take us some time to work out what the final rules will be, but I think we should have interim rules by next week. We'll see how it goes, and then we can adjust as we go on and work our way forward."

Mr Lee acknowledged the impact on businesses but pointed out that even before the riot, the authorities were discussing restrictions on the selling and drinking of alcohol in Little India. Residents had complained about drunken and disorderly behaviour, including men urinating or vomiting in public and loitering in void decks and other common areas.

"We have put in more security patrols and auxiliary police. It has helped but I think we need to tighten up further," he said.

"There are no easy solutions to these things... Now I think we have to call a time-out... We have to decide what the adjustments to the rules are and then we have to start planning again, which is what we will do."

As for foreign workers, Mr Lee stressed that Singapore would not tolerate any ill or unfair treatment of them. "They are people, they are working, they have families to support and they are here to do a job," he said.

"We have to make sure they are well treated, paid properly and on time, their safety is taken care of, their living conditions are also up to standard and that they are also given full protection of the law."


Workers stay in, hang out near dorms
Many avoid usual weekend haunt; businesses serve mostly local crowd
By Feng Zengkun, Amelia Tan And Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2013

IT WAS not a typical Sunday in Little India yesterday as migrant workers, particularly those from South Asia, stayed away from their usual weekend haunt.

As expected, many chose - or were ordered by their bosses - to remain in their dormitories to avoid trouble in the wake of the Dec 8 riot in Race Course Road.

Others spent their time near their quarters in areas like Jurong and Jalan Kayu, as an alcohol ban and a suspension of private buses heading to the Indian enclave were in force.

Some 50,000 of them, according to the Migrant Workers' Centre, attended events organised by the centre across the island to celebrate International Migrants Day, which is on Wednesday.

Many usually flock to Little India on Sundays to run errands, shop, eat and drink. But only pockets of workers were spotted there yesterday, a far cry from crowds that could swell to the tens of thousands on a typical Sunday - the only day off for most of them.

Construction worker Saravana Kumar, 31, one of the few in Little India, was there for a game of cricket with his friends. "We didn't know if we could come but my friend said the police are catching only those who drink," said the Indian national.

Alcohol was banned in the area over the weekend as it is believed to have played a part in the Dec 8 unrest. The Land Transport Authority also suspended 25 private bus services that usually ferry workers there on Sundays.

The measures were meant to let the area recover from last week's violence, in which some 400 South Asian workers turned on police and emergency service officers after a foreign worker was killed in an accident involving a private bus.

Businesses were entertaining mostly local customers yesterday morning. They said their takings had plummeted since the riot, with one claiming that his receipts were down by 70 per cent.

Workers trickled in later but most congregated around Mustafa Centre, avoiding the open fields near Race Course Road, where the fatal accident and riot happened.

Police presence was strong throughout yesterday, with many officers seen conducting checks on people and establishments for breaches of the alcohol ban. But as at 10pm, police said there were no breaches of the alcohol ban detected, and no one was caught for consuming alcohol in public.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who is an MP for the area, said the crowd was better behaved compared to a normal Sunday. "Speaking to the grassroots, some residents, they are happy about the situation," he said during a visit to the area last night.

"A number of the shopkeepers, especially those who are not selling alcohol, pointed out that they have seen an increase in business patronage from Singaporeans who would otherwise not be coming out on a Sunday night."

Mr Lui said the measures were temporary and there is a need to "look at how we can evolve them to a more sustainable state, whether it is for alcohol, liquor sales and consumption, trips made by private operators and so on".

Some residents living near dormitories and industrial estates had expressed worries that foreign workers avoiding Little India may begin crowding near their homes on Sundays. But the police said it will step up patrols in those areas to "deter and look for any potential public order incidents".

Police step up patrols at popular hang-outs
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2013

POLICE patrols, particularly in migrant worker hang-outs across Singapore, have been stepped up in the wake of last Sunday's riot in Little India.

Besides the Indian enclave, police officers were spotted yesterday in places such as Golden Mile Complex, which is popular among Thais, and Geylang, where Chinese workers tend to gather.

Workers who live near Jalan Kayu said the police have popped up "almost every day" around their Seletar Farmway quarters since the riot.

A greater police presence is also being felt at Teban Gardens and Penjuru, both near Jurong, as well as MRT stations like Dhoby Ghaut.

Such intensified police presence has put Geylang residents like Mr Tan Xiang Li, 58, at ease.

Pointing at surveillance cameras he has installed outside his home, he said: "It's a complicated area where people tend to drink and create trouble."

Thai national Tiyabot Khamchit, 40, visits Golden Mile Complex twice a month to remit money, buy groceries and hang out with friends over beers.

The construction worker, who has been here for 17 years, said: "We don't make trouble, so even with more police, there is nothing to be afraid of."

Little India eateries count their losses after alcohol ban
Businesses say they might be forced to shut; police reviewing measures
By Melody Zaccheus And Yeo Sam Jo, The Straits Times, 17 Dec 2013

SHOPKEEPERS and restaurant owners in Little India are counting their losses from an unusual weekend in which they could sell no alcohol, and thousands of workers took heed of their employers' advice and stayed away.

The Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association told The Straits Times that merchants generally reported an average decline in sales of 40 per cent to 60 per cent. Businesses which rely on alcohol sales, such as bars and provision shops, said they lost up to 90 per cent of their usual weekend takings and warned that they might have to close shop altogether if such a ban continues.

None of the 374 holders of a liquor licence could sell any alcohol between 6am last Saturday and 6am yesterday.

"The authorities need to decide what the long-term measures will be by this month. We can't hold on for that long," said Mr Paramjeet Singh, 50. The owner of beverage wholesaler Drinkz Connections in Race Course Road said he lost $20,000 in alcohol sales.

In contrast with the mayhem a week ago, Little India was quiet on the weekend, as the message repeated all week to foreign workers to stay away from the ethnic Indian enclave had its intended effect. Police said there were no fights and no breach of the alcohol ban.

It was so quiet that Zsofi Tapas Bar in Dunlop Street and S&YMD, an alcohol and groceries importer and distributor in Race Course Road, were among those which decided to roll down their shutters on Sunday. S&YMD estimates losses of about $4,000 in the sale of alcohol to migrant workers.

Shopkeepers also reported a discernible drop in the number of tourists, who usually arrive by the busload on Saturday mornings.

Yesterday, the police said they were reviewing longer-term measures for the area, "taking into consideration the situation at Little India this weekend and the interests of all affected stakeholders", and would announce them in "due course".

Some business owners asked for more engagement with the authorities.

Zsofi Tapas Bar director Ajay Maddila, 27, said he and two business owners wrote an appeal letter to the authorities on Wednesday asking them to restrict the ban to Sunday, but had no reply.

Several had suggestions like setting a cut-off time of 10pm for alcohol sales, banning drinking in public places and allowing higher- end eateries catering to families and tourists to keep their licences.

Said Drinkz Connections' Mr Singh: "It's the festive season and we are losing money by the thousands."

Meanwhile, Nammavar Provision shop's co-owner Nathan P., 33, plans to order about 40 per cent less alcohol from his supplier this week. To cope with the shortfall in alcohol takings, Muthu's Curry is planning promotions to attract families and other diners.

When asked how he intends to help the shop owners, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, told The Straits Times: "We should await the measures that will be announced for this coming weekend. Only then can we decide how to help these businesses. Ultimately, these measures have to be fair to all parties involved."

The police also said last night that they have arrested a 41-year- old Indian national in connection with the riot on Dec 8. This brings the total number of suspects nabbed so far to 34.

More dormitories for foreign workers to be built over next 2 to 3 years: PM Lee
By Saifulbahri Ismail, Channel NewsAsia, 14 Dec 2013

A temporary alcohol ban in Little India started on Saturday following the riot that broke out on December 8.

As the government mulls over whether to extend the ban further, it is also taking steps to improve the welfare of foreign workers.

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo at the end of the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit on Saturday, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a substantial number of dormitories will be built over the next two to three years to better house foreign workers.

Even as authorities tighten the inflow of foreign workers over the years, Mr Lee said their population needs to be managed, and there is an on-going inter-ministerial committee that looks into their welfare.

Over the past few days, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has been visiting several dormitories.

Mr Lee added there is also no evidence to show that the riot was caused by the lack of support for foreign workers.

He said: "We believe that foreign workers in Singapore ought to be treated fairly and properly. We do not stand for ill treatment or unfair treatment of foreign workers. We have to make sure they are well treated, they are paid properly on time, their safety is taken care of, their living conditions are up to standard, and they are given full protection of the law."

Mr Lee also addressed concerns raised by businesses affected by the alcohol ban this weekend.

He said: "We don't want anything to go wrong this week. So to make absolutely sure, we have a ban which covers quite a big area. And we said just no alcohol this week, and just calm down, cool down, and make sure things are back to normal.

“After that, we can calibrate and establish new rules. It would take some time to make out what the final rules will be, but I think we should have interim rules after this week. There is a downside to that timeout so everybody feels that and the timeout cannot last forever."

The ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol covers 1.1 square kilometres in the Serangoon Road area -- the scene of the riot on December 8.

Little India goes quiet as workers keep away
Alleys usually thronged with migrant workers remain empty amid a stronger police presence
By Melody Zaccheus And Lim Yan Liang, The Sunday Times, 15 Dec 2013

If yesterday was any indication, Little India today will see little of the usual Sunday scenes of packed shops and eating places, with crowds of men everywhere.

An alcohol ban and messages since last Sunday's riot advising foreign workers to cool down and keep away appeared to have worked throughout yesterday.

In the evening, the police advised people to refrain from assembling in Little India this weekend and allow the community "the space and time to recover from the events of last Sunday".

They also warned that organising or participating in a public assembly without a permit is illegal.

As at 10pm, police said, there were no incidents reported, no breaches of the alcohol ban detected, and no one was caught for consuming alcohol in public.

The authorities had earlier urged dormitory operators to keep men within their living quarters and provide recreational activities.

As a result, the typically vibrant and bustling district looked unusually quiet. Alleys usually thronged with hundreds of migrant workers chatting on mobile phones were conspicuously empty.

Gone too were the snaking rows of men waiting for their turn at barber shops and money changers.

There was a stronger police presence on the ground, with teams of officers making the rounds on foot.

Shopkeepers said the usual Saturday crowds at Mustafa Centre and Tekka Centre had halved.

Construction worker Pasupathan M., 20, stopped by Race Course Road to pack some lunch. "I'm scared to stay here for too long. I don't want to be arrested if a fight breaks out," he said.

Hardly a worker was in sight. Most businesses catering to them - including eateries, video sellers and mobile phone shops - reported a sharp dip in takings.

"Most of our 10 tables would be filled with Indian workers during Saturday lunch hour," said Spice Box supervisor Mateen Ahmed, 32. "Many would also buy takeaway food, but today it's empty."

Mr M. Gaudam, 45, manager of a Buffalo Road provision shop, did not have any customers at 8pm - usually his busiest time.

Undergraduate Irshath Mohamed, 23, who helps his father run Sangam Exchange, said they expect people to keep away in the coming weeks. "Everything is intertwined here, from the tourists to the workers to the locals," he said. "They make Little India what it is and this trickles down to our businesses. The quieter it is, the worse businesses will fare over time."

It was also the first day of the ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol across a 1.1 sq km zone. Liquor stores and bars were shuttered while some provision shops were putting up notices to inform customers about the two-day ban. To keep busy, some shop assistants spent their day doing spring cleaning and stock-taking.

Restaurant staff had to explain to surprised tourists about the alcohol ban. Diners at Indian Express in Race Course Road said they would go elsewhere for drinks instead. "I'm German, he's Hungarian. Us without beer is like a baby without milk," quipped computer science professor Jon Dieter, 37, who is visiting Singapore with a friend.

However, it proved of little consequence to others. Slovak Matt Svako, 27, said: "We are here to soak up the culture and heritage of the place. We can always go elsewhere for a drink."

One of the few businessmen who saw an upside was Mr Gunasagaran K., 49, owner of an accessories shop in Buffalo Road."I've had 40 per cent more Singaporean customers," he said. "They are shopping today due to the smaller crowds."

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